William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) Summary. The aim here is to summarise the work generally, highlighting ideas of particular interest.

Lecture 18: Philosophy

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In this lecture, James explores the relationship between philosophy and personal religious experience, between reason and feeling. He makes his own position clear from the outset. The former is subordinate to the latter:

I do believe that feeling is the deeper source of religion, and that philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products [p 431]

James focuses on two types of recent theoretical theology which give primacy to philosophy. These are Catholic scholasticism, as represented by Cardinal Newman, and Protestant idealism, as represented by a now forgotten Scot, called Caird.

The existence of God

The approach is to run through a series of topics, aiming to illustrate that in each case reason is subordinate to feeling. The first topic is the existence of God. James lists various philosophical proofs of this, but says that in fact they can do no more than corroborate pre-existing belief in the matter.


James next quotes at great length from Newman, regarding the metaphysical description of God. This he dismisses in terms of Peirce's principle of pragmatism. Essentially, he argues that a description of God in abstract philosophical language has no practical value for the believer and so has no value at all.

James finds that Caird's theorising survives the scrutiny of pragmatism: it has a practical value in that it corresponds to personal religious experience. Nevertheless, it does not actually prove anything. Thus the writer declares:

we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless. [p 455]

A critical Science of Religions

James ends the lecture by proposing a critical science of religion to replace the kind of philosophical theology he has dismissed. He sees the task of this science as separating the essential from the contingent in religion:

The spontaneous intellect of man always defines the divine which it feels in ways that harmonize with its temporary intellectual prepossessions. Philosophy can by comparison eliminate the local and the accidental from these definitions. [p 455]

He also sees this new science as subjecting religion to the scrutiny of the natural sciences:

Both from dogma and from worship she can remove historic incrustations. By confronting the spontaneous religious constructions with the results of natural science, philosophy can also eliminate doctrines that are now known to be scientifically absurd or incongruous. [p 455]

The new science will be able to identify what is best in religion:

Sifting out in this way unworthy formulations, she can leave a residuum of conceptions that at least are possible. [p 455]

The new science will be able to recommend its choice of religions and more besides:

She can perhaps become the champion of one which she picks out as being the most closely verified or verifiable. ... she can offer mediation between different believers, and help bring about consensus of opinion. [p 456]

In fact, says James:

I do not see why a critical Science of Religions of this sort might not eventually command as general a public adhesion as is commanded by a physical science. [p 456]
(c) John C Durham, 2002

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